Past Times

Drive-ins were come-as-you-are entertainment

Admission was 40 cents for adults, and movie-goers were reminded to douse their headlights.
Admission was 40 cents for adults, and movie-goers were reminded to douse their headlights. N&O Photo

As summer winds down, here’s a look at a favorite summer pastime – the drive-in movie. In 1949, N&O writer Jane Hall took us to the Forest Drive-In near what is now the intersection of Capital Boulevard and New Hope Church Road.

Dad can put on his bedroom slippers if he wants to, and Mother needn’t bother to dress up. The kids? Just put on their pajamas, stick them in the back seat and the family is off to the drive-in theater.

Going to the movies now is just as simple as that.

The drive-in theater has proved a boon to many married couples who want to go to the movies, for the drive-in has removed the problem of what to do with the children. Just take ‘em along.

With five drive-in theaters flanking Raleigh, Raleighites and Wake Countians can pay their money and take their choice of screenings.

Whenever they do, though, they’ll have to remember an unusual feature – outdoor movies depend on “dusk time” and cannot be shown each night at a definite hour as is done in town movie houses.…

The word “dusk” proved confusing to a number of people, according to H. F. Luther, Jr., manager of the Forest Drive-In Theater. The Forest Drive-In has a 500-car capacity.

We formerly advertised our shows as ‘beginning at dusk,’ but a lot of people called in asking what we meant,” he said. “To clear up the matter, we began putting the approximate starting time in our ads.…

“If people want to come, they don’t have to bother about dressing up, and they don’t have to worry about their children. They can bring them along. During the show, they can relax and smoke and eat and drink, if they want to.”

Lots of people are sold on the drive-in theaters, including an increasing number of the theater-going public. The theater chains, johnny-come-lately, now are enthusiastically latching onto an idea that many of them scoffed at some years ago....

Modern, up-to-date drive-ins are pretty snazzy. They’ll help you park, deliver food and drink to your auto, patch your tire, sell you a little gasoline, or heat the baby’s bottle. There’s no telling what service feature they’ll add next....

Attending a modern drive-in theater, the prospective patron stops by a ticket box and purchases a ticket without moving from his car. He then drives onto a paved field where an attendant directs his parking on a ramp facing a gigantic screen. On each ramp is a speaker (attached to a post) which the patron takes into his car. Thus, while watching the screen action, he simultaneously hears the dialogue of the actors and the screen sound effects.…

Speakers can be gotten which contain a heating unit for use in winter, but opinion as to their operation varies...

Weather plays a leading role in the operation of drive-in theaters. With the exception of the air lines, perhaps no other business is as concerned with the elements.

Rain, a good hard rain, doesn’t bother the drive-ins too much. Customers can see the screen clearly if it rains in a solid sheet, according to Luther. A light shower, however, tends to distort vision (the drops can be seen individually and the result is similar to dancing spots before one’s eyes). When there’s a spotty rain, the patrons usually crank up and run their windshield wipers, and it doesn’t seem to bother them, Luther said.

Snow is something else again. If it snows hard enough, there’s nothing for the drive-in operator to do but close up and go home....

Some people will tell you, with a grin, that the drive-ins are fine places, especially for courting, pitching woo, necking or whatever you want to call it. Undeniably, they do offer the necessary relative seclusion for this immemorial custom. No objectionable behavior, however, was reported in this connection by the drive-in managers, and they were quick to point out that the drive-ins do not have trouble with “mashers” as do the town theaters.

An irritant, and an occupational hazard incidental to the operation of a drive-in theater, is the absent-minded habit on the part of some of the public in starting to drive off before returning the speaker to its post, thus breaking the cord.

Members of the drive-in staff can repair the speakers, but there have been incidences when the individual breaking the cord simply drove off with the speaker.

“We’ve had three speakers to disappear,” says Manager Luther of the Forest Drive-In, “and that runs into money. We regard the breakage as an occupational hazard and we don’t charge for repairs.

Drive-ins, which the trade calls “ozoners” and “airers,” could also point to a recent triumph over man and nature. In Denver last fortnight, a once skeptical Hollywood had staged its first world premier at an ozoner. Heavy rain lashed at the arena, but… 7,000 of the faithful waited for two hours in 1,500 cars.

From their modest start in Camden (N. J.) in 1933, the drive-ins have grown too big to be dampened by rain. They woo the family trade with an imposing sideshow of picnic areas, merry-go-rounds, dance floors, shuffleboard courts and bottle-warming, car-washing and laundry service. Among the latest gimmicks planned or already drawing customers to the airers: night clubs, golf-driving ranges, Shetland ponies, barbecue pits and motorized bingo (the jackpot goes to the right speedometer mileage).

One outdoor impresario estimates that 80 per cent of drive-in fans are not, and never have been, regular indoor moviegoers. The best customers are 1) moderate-income families who bring the children to save on baby-sitting, 2) the aged and physically handicapped and 3) farmers and factory workers ducking the ritual of dressing up to go to a movie in town. The drive-ins are also popular with young neckers, but exhibitors deny that their places are, in Variety’s phrase, “passion pits with pix.” Their righteous defense: nothing happens that doesn’t go on in a balcony. The N&O July 24, 1949

Leonard: 919-829-4866 or tleonard@